Discover the 8 Best National and State Parks in Iowa

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: April 17, 2022
Image Credit EWY Media/Shutterstock.com
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Iowa is a perfect weekend getaway for you and your friends. The rivers, state parks, and historical sites will help you reconnect with nature and with the state’s history like never before.

Iowa is located in the midwestern region of the United States. It is bordered by three rivers: the Mississippi River to the east, the Missouri River, and the Big Sioux River to the west. A short recreational vacation in a state surrounded by nature might just be what you’ve been looking for. 

Moreover, Iowa is rich in historical and cultural facts. It can be a great destination whether you are or aren’t passionate about history. American Indians first arrived in what we now call Iowa more than 13,000 years ago. There, they adapted to the environment and ecosystems of the place. Since then, colonization, trade, wars, expansions, and depression left a mark on the economic and social status of the region. 

1. Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument
Effigy Mounds National Monument is located in Marquette and Dubuque cities, alongside the Mississippi River.

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Effigy Mounds National Monument
LocationAllamakee County (nearest cities Marquette and Dubuque)
Size3.78 square miles
Animals to spotWhite-tail deer, turkey, raccoon
Attractions to seeMounds, hiking trails, scenic views

Effigy Mounds National Monument is a must-see if you’re looking for a destination that would expand your knowledge about American history. It is located in Marquette and Dubuque cities, alongside the Mississippi River. 

It is an ancient Native American site and preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds considered ceremonial and sacred sites. The mounds date back to sometime between 500 BC and 1300 AD. The curious thing is that these mounds were built in the shapes of various animals, including bears, panthers, and birds.

A 14-mile hiking trail that takes you through wooded areas and prairies can also be found here. The trail leads to terrific views above the Mississippi River. 

2. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site commemorates the life of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States.

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Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
LocationWest Branch, Cedar, and Johnson Counties
Size186.8 acres
Animals to spotcottontail, lots of species of insects and arachnids, eastern gray squirrel
Attractions to seeHerbert Hoover’s birthplace cottage, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, library, and museum

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site commemorates the life of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States. He spent the first 11 years of his life in this area. The cottage where he was born became a tourist destination after he became president.

During your visit to this historic site, start with the visitor’s center. There you’ll be able to see a 12-minute film about Hoover’s life. You can then go for a walk through the site. Here’s what you can visit: Hoover’s birthplace cottage, a one-room schoolhouse, and a blacksmith shop. There’s also the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, where you’ll enjoy some exhibits depicting the president’s life.

If you’re passionate about birds, a study shows that 68 species of birds were found at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. The American robin and red-winged blackbird were the predominant species. 

3. Lewis and Clark State Park

Lewis and Clark State Park
Lewis and Clark State Park is a picturesque park with elements of history.

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Lewis and Clark State Park
LocationOnawa, Monona County; Sioux City
Size616 acres
Animals to spotDeer, rabbits, squirrels, lots of bird species
Attractions to seeKeelboat reproduction, Sergeant Floyd River Museum

Lewis and Clark State Park is a picturesque park with elements of history. It is a part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that runs across the United States, connecting 16 states. The trail measures approximately 4,900 miles. 

The visitor’s center will add more information to what you already know about the expedition. You’ll also see a full-sized reproduction of the keelboat used in 1804. At the time, the expedition members stopped in Iowa on their way to the Missouri River. There are also other replicas of various historic vessels. You can stay for a few days there, as the park has camping areas. Hiking, boating, and fishing are allowed.

If you realize you’re interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, you can go north to Sioux City to see the Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center. The museum is located inside the M. V. Sergeant Floyd boat, which gives it a unique touch. Chris Larsen Park and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center are nearby. 

4. Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail is home to raccoons, opossums, and squirrels.

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Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
Location in IowaSouthern Iowa, from Keokuk to Council Bluffs
Animals to spotRaccoons, opossums, squirrels
Attractions to seePart of the trail; Kanesville Tabernacle & Visitor Center

Following the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail will definitely become one of the most memorable road trips you’ve ever gone on. The trail is a 1,300-mile route that starts from Nauvoo, Illinois, and ends in Salt Lake City, Utah. Between 1846 and 1868, around 14,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons, followed their leader, Brigham Young, to Utah to build a new settlement. 

You can track their route in the southeast of Iowa, from Keokuk to Council Bluffs City. Once you arrive, you can visit the Kanesville Tabernacle and Visitor Center. It features a reconstruction of the tabernacle built by the Mormons, where they elected Brigham Young as their leader.

5. Ledges State Park

Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is one of the best destinations Iowa can offer to hikers and nature lovers.

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Ledges State Park
LocationBoone, Boone County
Size167 acres
Animals to spotWhite-tail deer, beaver, woodchuck, rare birds species
Attractions to seeHiking trails, scenic overviews, a stone bridge spanning Peas Creek

Ledges State Park is located approximately 4 miles south of Boone City. It’s one of the best destinations Iowa can offer to hikers and nature lovers. It’s known for the famous stone bridge that crosses Peas Creek and its sandstone ledges that go up to 100 feet above the Des Moines River. If you’re passionate about hiking, there’s a 4-mile trail system that provides the opportunity to enjoy fantastic natural landscapes. 

Canoeing and fishing are also options if you’re not a fan of hiking. And if you’re planning a more extended visit, you can either book a campsite beforehand or reserve one when you arrive. 

6. Maquoketa Caves State Park

Maquoketa Caves State Park
LocationJackson County (nearest city Maquoketa)
Size323 acres
Animals to spotA wide variety of bird and fish species
Attractions to seeVarious geological formations, hiking trails

Maquoketa Caves State Park is one of the most beautiful state parks in Iowa due to its numerous caves. It’s been a popular destination since the 1860s. 

It has a 6-mile trail system for hikers. The trail takes them through geological formations and forests and leads to spectacular views. The park contains approximately 13 caves that can’t wait to be discovered! So if you’re an adventurous traveler, you’ll definitely enjoy what Maquoketa Caves State Park has to offer!

Moreover, if you’re not willing to go for a hike, you can occupy one of the picnic shelters to enjoy a relaxing day in the heart of nature. There’s also an interpretive center that is open on weekends during summer. There you can find out more about the caves and the park’s history. 

7. Shimek State Forest

Shimek State Forest
LocationLee and Van Buren County
Size9,148 acres
Animals to spotWhite-tail deer, fox, gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits, woodchuck, beaver
Recreational activitiesPicnicking, fishing, hiking, biking

More than 9,148 acres of nature are at your disposal at Shimek State Forest! There are five recreational units with nature and hiking trails, picnic areas, and fishing opportunities. Shimek State Forest has four main campgrounds that can be booked through the park reservation system. 

You can also take your bike on the 60-mile trails through craggy hills and woodland areas if you’re adventurous enough. There are horseback riding trails as well. We advise you to check with the forest’s administration for further details regarding horseback riding.

8. Springbrook State Park

Springbrook State Park
LocationGuthrie County (nearest city Yale)
Size920 acres
Animals to spotDeer, coyote, wild turkey, beaver, muskrat
Recreational activitiesHiking, snowmobiling, swimming, kayaking, boating, fishing

Located near the Raccoon River, Springbrook State Park is a beautiful setting for a weekend getaway. It is located approximately 5.5 miles west of Yale City and has over 12 miles of hiking trails. These trails cross both prairies and more challenging routes, so you’ll be able to enjoy them whether you are or aren’t a hiking enthusiast. 

Swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing are possible on the Raccoon River, along with savoring the natural landscapes. During winter, Springbrook State Park provides its visitors with a 4-mile snowmobiling trail. 

This state park has a four-bedroom house called The Sherburne House available for booking. It has three bathrooms, two living rooms, and a kitchen. If the house is too big for you and your group, you can opt for camping. The park’s campground has modern showers, restrooms, electric hookups, and a trailer dump station.

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